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Thereasea Elder championed community, history and health
Nurse and activist dies at age 93
Published Thursday, January 7, 2021 8:20 pm
by Ashley Mahoney

Theresea Elder was honored for her lifetime of work at Taste Of The New South held at Levine Museum Of The New South on Feb. 23, 2018. Mrs. Elder, the first Black public health nurse in Mecklenburg County, died Jan. 5 at age 93.

Thereasea Clark Elder was a beacon of hope and guidance for many Charlotteans.

Mrs. Elder, who died Jan. 5 at age 93, accomplished much, including becoming Mecklenburg County’s first Black public health nurse in 1962, founding the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Heritage Committee in 1992, earning the Order of the Long-Leaf Pine in 2001 (the highest honor a civilian may receive in North Carolina) and the city of Charlotte named the Thereasea Clark Elder Neighborhood Park for her in 2005.

“Miss Elder is very special to me, and she is very special to a lot of people in the community—she has touched a lot of people,” Levine Museum of the New South Historian and Charlotte native Willie Griffin said. 

Mrs. Elder was born in Lancaster, South Carolina in 1927, but grew up on Hamilton Street in Charlotte’s Greenville neighborhood—the present day AvidXChange Music Factory. In 1938, she attended West Charlotte High School during the school’s first year. After a year at Johnson C. Smith University, she transferred to North Carolina Central University to study nursing. Following graduation, she returned to Charlotte, and between juggling her work at the now-defunct Good Samaritan Hospital (the first private hospital in North Carolina built to treat Black patients and current site of Bank of America Stadium) and raising a family, she completed a certificate in public health from UNC Chapel Hill.

Mrs. Elder worked to preserve history, including that of the Greenville community where she grew up. She was president of the Greenville Historical Association.

“She loved history,” Griffin said. “When the Levine Museum opened its doors in 2001 in its current location, she was very adamant and insistent that the permanent exhibit [Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers] hold the chapel of Good Samaritan Hospital. She wanted it to be part of the exhibit. When the exhibit opened in 2002, the exhibit won national acclaim and brought a lot of attention to the museum. Miss Elder contributed to that.” 

Griffin recalled how Mrs. Elder’s inspiration to pursue nursing came from the environmental racism her community was exposed to when growing up. Greenville was the site of an asbestos plant where cancer-causing particles were released into the air.

“Everyone knows now that asbestos kills, and one her siblings lost their life,” Griffin said. “She used to talk about how the kids would play in piles of asbestos and had no idea what it was doing to them.”

Mrs. Elder made it her mission to improve the health of the Black community.

“This was a woman who understood that there was a really important connection between the health of Black people and their understanding of their history,” Griffin said. “We don’t often make those connections, but she understood early on that your health is connected to your understanding of who you are. If we think about Black Lives Matter and sort of pan down into the local struggle for Black Lives Matter in Charlotte, because it is an enduring struggle, she is perhaps been one of the most important soldiers in that struggle.”

Griffin met Mrs. Elder in 2002 while he was working on his master’s thesis on Charlotte’s civil rights movement. He read an article in the Charlotte Observer about five individuals who quietly changed Charlotte during that time. Griffin’s grandfather was also on that list.

“This idea of quietly doing things and pressing on in your own lane, your own path, your own corner of the world—she was a nurse,” Griffin said.

Mrs. Elder encouraged Griffin throughout his studies, making him the chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Heritage Committee introducing him to key political figures in Charlotte from members of city council to county commissioners.

“She wanted them to know what I was doing in trying to uncover this history,” Elder said. “She contacted Harvey Gantt [Charlotte’s first Black mayor], and arranged my first meeting with Harvey Gantt. She wanted people to know how important the history was in the city, and she wanted them to know a young African American man had taken interest in this history.”

While Griffin’s work would take him away from Charlotte, Mrs. Elder called him when the position for the Levine Museum staff historian opened, she called Griffin and told him to apply.



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